Thanks to “Les Mis”, I am well-acquainted with the shape of some celebrity noses, by Matilda Dixon-Smith

Posted on December 31, 2012

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Golly, Tom Hooper loves an emotionally raw close-up shot. For me, this defined his cinematic take on Les Miserables. Hooper’s film was an extravagant love letter the beloved stage musical (based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name). This has been a long time coming; musical theatre enthusiasts have eagerly anticipated the day they could sit in a cinema and have a bunch of famous actors scream ‘One Day More’ at them. I am one of those people.

This meant that sometimes I was easy on the film. Other things, like switching the chronological placement of songs, hit me like a knife in the gut (because everyone knows Eponine wails On My Own wearing a newsboy cap, and I won’t have it any other way). Strangely, it all balanced out—my obsession with the film’s relationship to the musical gelled with my simple desire to watch a good movie. It wasn’t perfect (by God, Russell Crowe’s singing voice is evidence of that) but it was beautiful and tragic, and sometimes terribly camp. And, for the most part, it just worked.

Plus, Sewer Humour. So let’s tumble off this bridge together.

The very spooky ‘Les Mis’ poster.

Poor Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is having trouble. He’s just finished a nineteen-year prison sentence—pulling on ships, picking up flag poles and other important convict jobs—for stealing a loaf of bread. He is finally being released but, for a convict, early 1800s France is a total bitch. He can’t get a job, children throw rocks at him; it’s basically not looking good for our hero.

In a desperate moment, Valjean rips up his papers, jumps parole and assumes a new identity. Hot on his heels is Javert (Crowe), a policeman who is super into the law and determined to nab Valjean for breaking his parole. Javert chases Valjean past the consumption-riddled body of Fantine (Anne Hathaway) to Paris. There, Valjean settles with his ward—Fantine’s daughter—Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), in the midst of a tumultuous student uprising. Some of the students at the helm are the uncomfortably intense Enjolras (Aaron Tveit) and a dumb-ass romantic, Marius (Eddie Redmayne).

There’s also a gross innkeeper (Sasha Baron Cohen) and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter), their daughter, feisty Eponine (Samantha Barks), and a mouthy little kid, Gavroche (Daniel Huttlestone).

Hugh Jackman as the film’s scraggly hero, Jean Valjean.

I think the film suffers from an inability to let go. They should’ve thought twice about keeping the show sung-through (where the action is sung, not spoken, in a recitative style). Purists will probably enjoy this, because the musical is gloriously sung-through; but it’s the biggest let down of this version, because performers (like Poor Russell) who are actors first and singers second have to fight against the awkward recitative to produce a truly spectacular performance.

For most of the actors (save Jackman and Hathaway), the few moments they are able to speak dialogue are more affecting. In the case of Poor Russell, the few times he speaks as Javert his powerful bass voice proves why the casting directors took a chance on him for a baritone role. Had he been able to speak his lines (the bulk of which are recitative), his performance would have been much stronger.

And though Eddie Redmayne is a fabulous singer, I felt the same about him. Much of Redmayne’s appeal is in the sweetness of his spoken voice and the sincerity with which he delivers lines. When he asks Gavroche to deliver a letter for him—speaking—it is his single best moment in the film. But heck, his ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ is brilliant. Plus he’s stunning to look at and suits Hooper’s romantic visual style well. Even covered in sewer gunk he is a heavenly babe—and now my fantasy boyfriend.

Eddie Redmayne as Marius…he’s gonna get’cha!

The inundation of recitative is the most major disappointment. In most other respects, it is a spectacular translation from stage to screen. ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ is repurposed very effectively, as are some key moments on the barricade (Enjolras, y’all). Hooper and his team clearly have an affinity with the masterful staging of the musical, because there are nudges to it all though the film.

‘Master of the House’ was probably most improved on film; Hooper has directed it so the yucky, tricky things that Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter do provide some much-needed comic relief. I don’t think anyone doubted those two would be great as the inexplicably cockney innkeeper and his wife.

Mucking around with the chronology of Eponine’s songs sort of killed the effectiveness of her story for me, and Samantha Barks wasn’t particularly impressive. I am devastated by the sub-standard ‘A Little Fall of Rain’. Cosette still doesn’t do it for me, and we can all live without ever hearing Amanda Seyfried’s reed-thin soprano again, straining for the top notes in ‘A Heart Full of Love’. However, I’ll give Seyfried and Redmayne props for effectively pulling off the gawky ‘love at first sight’ storyline.

As the accidental prostitute Fantine, Anne Hathaway is phenomenal. Fantine is not the most rewarding part—out of the picture so early—yet Hathaway is so strong her tragedy pervades the rest of the film. It’s a performance that’s difficult to endure, in the best sense. It was the first time I understood why Valjean would vow to take care of little Cosette for Fantine, a woman he barely knows.

Anne Hathaway as the rather depressing Fantine.

Though that may be because Hugh Jackman is an absolute superstar and I would believe anything he said or did immediately. Valjean is sort of a stupid character—equal parts delicate and ox-strong, damaged and pious. Somehow, though, Jackman pulls it off, and I believe. I understand his guilt over his treatment of Fantine, his instant affection for Marius, his complex relationship with Javert, because Jackman has this truly effective sensitivity. His voice is almost perfect—the only falter is in the notoriously difficult ‘Bring Him Home’, where we learn that Hugh Jackman can’t do falsetto.

I want it known that I don’t blame Poor Russell for his performance of ‘Stars’, which was borderline upsetting. He was never going to be able to do it; I blame us for not preparing for the worst. The children, surprisingly enough, did not annoy me. I even thought Gavroche was cute, so kudos to that kid. Enjolras—I mean, Aaron Tveit is a babe with a brilliant voice, but now I am surer than ever that Enjolras is secretly gay.

If there’s another criticism, it’s that the endless close-ups and the rigid stand-and-deliver mode of performing wore thin. There were many times I just wished they would all do more, or that we could see more. It was heavy-handed—as it always would be—to the point where I was sure the scene in the sewers was a huge joke, and I laughed when Hugh Jackman nearly drowned in excrement.

Ultimately, though, it’s a courageous, breath-taking effort, because Hooper can so gracefully blend ugly (so many extras with weeping sores) and beautiful. Now, let us never speak of Russell Crowe’s singing again.

Here is a hilariously spooky Les Mis wedding flash mob, which we found on wonderful Vulture. You’re welcome.

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s editor-in-chief. She enjoys musicals, talking about musicals, and singing along to musicals. And sneaky ridicule of Russell Crowe’s singing voice. You can read more of her work here and here

What did you think of Les Mis? Do you want to see it One Day More and forever more? Or did you leave Empty Chairs at Empty Tables in your movie theatre? Sing out in the comments.

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Posted in: Movies, Music, Theatre